Coal

June 21st, 2018

The church is almost exactly seven miles from our house. Karin and I usually go there for daily Mass. We drive together to St. Rita, and sometimes I choose to walk home. The church is at the northern edge of Racine and our home sits near the southern border of Oak Creek. In between Racine and Oak Creek lies the village of Caledonia. Caledonia is semi-rural with small farms, isolated sub-divisions, and working class bars.

Highway 32 connects our home with St. Rita. If I walk back to our house, I follow Hwy 32 part of the way. The rest of my journey follows a nearby bicycle path. The bike path is paralleled by a railroad spur to the west and high tension wires on the east. Both the railroad tracks and the power lines run directly north to the Oak Creek power plant. Quite often trains consisting of scores of coal cars rest on the railroad siding. These trains can extend for one mile, and sometimes two. The cars are fully loaded, and they are all destined to empty out at the power plant, where the fires never cease. The power lines quietly hum and crackle as I walk alongside them. I am generally alone on the bike path, my feet crunching on the crushed limestone that covers the trail.

As I walk north, I can see the twin stacks of the power plant in the distance. The plant dominates everything in the area. The stacks can be seen billowing out steam from five miles away. When I get to within two miles of the power plant, all the land between Hwy 32 and Lake Michigan belongs to We Energies. The electric utility has its own little empire on the eastern edge of Caledonia and Oak Creek. Coming from the south, I can see a mountain of coal sitting near the plant. The black pile is higher than the surrounding buildings. However, it is only visible from certain angles, because We Energies has massive berms built along Hwy 32. The berms block anybody from seeing the power plant, except for the stacks that rise up above everything else like the towers from The Lord of the Rings.

A portion of the bike path comes very close to the highway. There used to be homes on the western side of the road, across from the power plant’s property. Most of those are gone. We Energies has gradually and relentlessly bought up the land to the west of the road. The purchased homes are systematically razed to the ground. Grass and scrawny tress are planted over the former home sites. It is nearly impossible to tell that people actually lived next to We Energies.

There is an exception. One house remains directly across from the power plant. It is poorly maintained, and the property is studded with large hand-painted signs. These signs have been there at least for ten tears. The power plant had a major expansion back in 2008. Some of us opposed this, but that was the year of the Great Recession. We Energies trumpeted the message that the expansion would bring new jobs. The economy at that time was scary , so the politicians from local the municipalities cut deals with the utility. Money changed hands. In 2009 the coal-fired plant doubled in size.

The signs are scrawled with messages like: “We Can’t Breath, Sleep, Live”, or “Corporate Corrupt Collusion Continues”, and “Coaledonia”. Nobody reads the signs, except for me. The posted speed limit on Hwy 32 is 45 mph. Few people do less than sixty. They go by too fast to see the signs, and they probably wouldn’t be interested in them anyway. I always see the signs. I stop my walk and I read them. Somehow, they fascinate me. They are both inspiring and pathetic. The signs cannot change the fact that the power plant is there, and it will not go away. However, the signs stand in silent protest. They will be there until the day that We Energies buys up that land. They will stand until both they and the old house are torn down by corporate greed.

I don’t mind power plants. I like electricity as much as the next person. However, there are other ways to produce energy. There are cleaner ways to do it. There are smarter ways to do it.

Karin and I have an apple tree in our backyard. Every year it produces a crop of Golden Delicious apples. Every year the apples are stained with black spots.

Where do the spots come from?

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